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Ancient and modern

Socrates would know why Jeremy Corbyn is a certain disaster

The great philosopher was scornful of would-be leaders who refused to learn from experience

13 May 2017

9:00 AM

13 May 2017

9:00 AM

Jeremy Corbyn said: ‘It is the job of leadership to hold open the space for dissent, new thinking and fit-for-purpose policy… I have always believed in standing firm and in empowering others to make up their minds and come on board when they are ready.’ This is a rum definition of leadership. But then his parliamentary experience of it was nil.

According to the essayist Xenophon, Socrates once crossed paths with one Euthydemus who, having read lots of books by poets and intellectuals, considered himself to be the cleverest young man of his generation and therefore fully prepared to take the lead in developing policy in the people’s Assembly. Socrates set him thinking by suggesting that, just as craftsmen did not get anywhere without learning the skill from other craftsmen, surely it would be absurd to imagine that leading a state, the greatest job of all, should be something that came to you automatically.


On another occasion, Socrates suggested that when Euthydemus in his present condition stood up for the first time to offer his guidance to the Assembly, he would resemble a man bidding for the post of the city’s public doctor in the following words: ‘I have never yet learned the art of medicine from anyone, nor have I felt the need for any doctor to teach me. I have consistently protected myself not only from learning anything, but also from giving the appearance of learning anything, from the professionals. Still, give me this position. I shall try to learn by conducting experiments on you.’

Corbyn’s experiments so far have proved unimpressive. Aristotle explained why. A real political leader fulfils three conditions: (i) he has the ability to do the job (êthos); (ii) he understands the needs of, and can generate a response in, the voters (pathos); and (iii) his arguments add up (logos). In their absence, he can ‘stand firm’ and ‘empower’ till the cows come home, but voters will remain ‘unready’ to ‘come on board’ — unless manning the lifeboats is their idea of fun.


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